My whole life, I’ve lived in a relatively small square area of the world. Adventures away from the comforts of Redford and Livonia usually only went as far as Ann Arbor, DeWitt, or Mount Pleasant. When, on rare occasion my family left frigid Michigan for a brief visit to another state, we stayed in a primly clean hotel, and saw some postcard opportune landscapes before returning to my quirky corner of a home.
I had never left the country until a few weeks ago, when a plane carrying me, my sister, and 30 other girls from my high school landed in the Dominican Republic. Neighbor to Haiti, the Dominican Republic was at first glance a beautiful blend of Mexico, Africa, and Hawaii that seemed too foreign to me to be real. The five-hour bus ride brought us to a retreat house—our strange new “home” for the week, where we slept under mosquito netting, battled our first world instinct to flush the toilet paper (a big no-no), and had no access to showers!
By the second night, I was starting to epically freak out. Not just for the comforts of carpeting and American plumbing, but for all of the family and friends I’d left behind and rarely had to be without. I began to miss my routine of going to church three times a week and my friends on the March for Life and the way my dog barks at every stupid thing. As I lay in my bed, listening to the sounds of rural life and Dominican music outside my window, my little corner seemed so lovely and so far away. I couldn’t understand then, how I could ever adjust to my new life in the DR. I didn’t know then, how God was going to expand my understanding and experience of where beauty and joy abide.
After a good night’s sleep, our week of mission work began and I realized while serving in my work group, that not every backdrop of my life had been stripped away. God had left me with my classmates, many of whom I didn’t know very well before the week began. The familiarity of their faces was my first consolation that allowed me to step up to task as we knocked down walls with sledgehammers and strolled about the little town of El Llano visiting the poor. Back at the base, between hair-braiding sessions, the struggle of hand-tying rosaries, and lots + lots of music, the team was bonding and forming a strong community of service and love.
Of course, what sets a mission trip apart from a typical retreat is the service, and working with the people of the town. Developing these relationships—though now only memories—was one of the most impactful parts of the trip for me.
Some of the very first locals we met were our drivers. Initially, I was very confused why we even had people to drive us around the DR. And then they miraculously whirred our cars past motorcycles with four people on them, avoided insanely large potholes, and bounced us up winding mountain passes, all without traffic cops, driving regulations, or stop signs. Our drivers also had quite the personalities; a few truly memorable ones were Kiko, Bean, Willie, and Carlos, better known as “Usher” for his eerie resemblance to a certain pop star. Although they knew about as much English as I did Spanish (un poco), I found that there didn’t need to be a common language to enjoy each others’ company and bond over random shared interests, like Shakira or swimming. Plus, when attempted compliments like “you’re so strong” are misconstrued into “you are a pig”, both sides get a laugh at the perpetrator’s expense.
Besides our drivers, we spent lots of time with the local children. Back home I’m not known for my wonderful kid-whisperer abilities and wasn’t sure if I’d know what to do with kids who didn’t speak my language or share a similar life. So I was shocked again when no matter where I was: the park, the medical clinic, the nutrition center, or the preschool, that the kids were just as enchanted by me as I was by them. They liked to be hugged and tickled and smiled at; they wanted piggyback rides and they laughed when there was dirt on the butt of my scrubs. They played house and jump rope and fought each other for attention. Each and every child was uniquely beautiful and impacted me greatly. Something beyond our lives was drawing each of us together, and I could feel something really changing in me.
Even the adults, who I expected to be resistant to help and prideful in their poverty, were phenomenal examples of true virtue. It was clear that most of what they owned was donated to them. As we walked down the streets, it was common was to see people smile, wave, or invite us to stop and visit. No matter what they were going through, they were full of an inexplicable joy. Their lives were simple, with very few material possessions, but they were more content than most Americans I see every day.
Which brings me back to my patch of the world, only a small part of the giant blanket of stars that covers us all. Though the blanket rarely wrinkles enough for one patch to see the other, I was blessed enough to peek at the Dominican Republic: a new place of wonder and beauty and truly transcendent humanity. It is a comfort to know that when I look up at the night sky the bright stars of home are not alone in their brightness. Where there is true love, there is a place that can truly shine.